No Bottoms or asses wanted

April 12, 2002

V-cs should be creatures with moral authority and a heart - good old-fashioned stewards, says Gill Evans

In last week's THES, Ian Gibson MP described academics and vice-chancellors respectively as "lions led by donkeys". In Cambridge we have to pin the tail on our own particular new donkey in the next few months. How can we find a good leader and not one rescued from the donkey sanctuary?

Walter Greaves argues in the same issue that it all "starts with attracting the right person". You have to make your "salary package" sufficiently like a honeypot. Then the potential vice-chancellors will come running. He even thinks vice-chancellors, once appointed, will do better work if they get a rise. But surely only people on whom more money confers a status they would otherwise lack are truly "spurred" by a financial carrot? Yet government and business appear to think these are the people who should be running universities.

Besides money, management ability is high up the agenda for anyone seeking to hire a new vice-chancellor or other great leader, and THES advertisements bear the marks of the management revolution in higher education rightly deplored by Michael Loughlin (Features, THES, March 22). They are dreadfully earnest, humourless and unimaginative. Last week only a couple of deputy posts figured.

The University of Surrey wants to "complete the management team". Its new deputy vice-chancellor will be expected to "deliver the new structure for academic management" and undertake the "review and modification of the academic portfolio of the university". Stafford College wants another such transfigured Bottom as assistant principal, with "strategic vision, commercial acumen and leadership skills".

But how about moral authority? Lions have that - viz The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. How about the vice-chancellor as first and foremost a good man (let us not be unduly optimistic about women's chances), not personally greedy for power or prestige or wealth; humane; genuinely concerned for the welfare of individuals; and willing to give time and effort to improving the lot of students and all categories of staff?

A vice-chancellor like that can still be clever and energetic and focused. Quick on his mental feet. A witty and engaging speaker with a sense of fun. No soft touch. With a good sense of priority. Good at spotting the essentials of a complex problem and remembering how it all fits together, so that the mass of papers crossing his desk are intellectually pigeon-holed and come back to mind when problems repeat themselves. And a modestly cultured inner life would not go amiss in an academic environment.

He should be able to get things done, but he should also be an enabler, not the Fat Controller those job advertisements seem to be looking for.

Is this practical? I think it is. Someone like that could deliver any of those "packages" that turned out to be worth delivering, but he could do it with a bit of discrimination.

Why would this "lion" want the job as presently defined? Wouldn't he be better employed in the lab or writing his next book? The head of an Oxford College, now dead, once said to me that he thought his main task was to look after something precious. I don't see much wrong with that. Good old-fashioned stewardship.

We in Cambridge are having a preliminary meeting on April 26 to discuss what should go in the advertisement. But alas the "consultants" have already been hired, and I am sure head-hunters are already rounding up the donkeys. Head-hunters don't like lions. They ask awkward questions about higher things.

Gill Evans is a lecturer in history at Cambridge University and public policy secretary for the Council for Academic Freedom and Standards.

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